Government aware deadline for temporary rail measures drawing near

The recent release of CTA recommendations further complicates the decision, says transport minister

The federal government is grappling with a complicated question as the expiry date looms on emergency sanctions imposed on the railways in 2014: should they stay or should they go?

Astronaut-turned-transport minister, Marc Garneau concedes the timeline is a tight one as the current measures — minimum weekly haulage targets, expanded interswitching and fines on the railways for shortfalls — are due to end July 31.

Those measures were the key provisions in a March 2014 cabinet order by the Harper government. Garneau said proposals issued earlier this month for changing federal oversight of grain transport are complicating the decision.

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“We want to take the best possible approach to making sure that grain moves efficiently, it’s an important resource,” Garneau told the Commons transport committee. “But in the larger picture, that we’re also moving potash efficiently, that we’re moving pulses, that we’re moving coal, that we’re moving all products including containers.”

The 2014 measures were intended to increase weekly grain movements after the massive crop of 2013. Subsequent harvests have been smaller and the grain transport and handling system has been working better.

Western farm groups want government to extend the cabinet order and reject CTA review proposals. The farm organizations say phasing out annual revenue caps and terminating extended interswitching in Western Canada will reduce railway competition rather than enhance it as the CTA claims.

Edmonton NDP MP Linda Duncan said numerous Prairie groups are concerned about the loss of protections for grain farmers, which would impair their ability to take advantage of the opportunities offered in new trade agreements.

Garneau said he and his agriculture counterpart, Lawrence MacAulay, will address issues regarding the Canadian grain transportation system.

“These actions will aim to achieve real change so that transportation in Canada can both capitalize on opportunities and meet the evolving needs of all Canadians,” Garneau said.

He noted the government released the CTA review, headed by former cabinet minister David Emerson, earlier than required.

“I wanted to get it out there so that interested groups would have the opportunity to look at it as early as possible,” Garneau said. “I wanted Canadians to see that report, even though our own analysis of the report, as I said, is ongoing.”

The review’s more than 60 recommendations are still under study in Transport Canada and Garneau said he’s hearing many comments on them.

Bob Ballantyne, president of the Freight Management Association of Canada, said in an interview Transport Canada is engaged in informal discussions on the review with interested groups. A formal consultation process will likely be established later this year. He added that because of the high level of detail in the report, many groups are still studying it.

Garneau said transportation is important to the economy but it’s also the second-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the country, and the government would be looking for ways to reduce that.

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